Fish-Free Sea

You may live to see it in your lifetime

Illustration by Bob AulWe're standing at the oyster bar upstairs at Newport Landing on the Balboa Peninsula, looking through sliding glass doors—over the Shell marine fuel station, across a Newport Harbor turned the color of anvils in the midsummer, midafternoon heat, right across to Balboa Island. A ferry chugs sluggishly in the middle distance; a sportsfishing boat bristling with rods rotates slowly midchannel into its slip outside the Balboa Pavilion. There's a guy—no kidding—in a yellow slicker loitering on the dock of the gas station. A fishhook may or may not be involved.

We're here—amid the lobster traps, wakeboards, surf videos and big-breasted waitresses designed to create for tourists that vaguely nautical sense they're near the ocean when, hey, they're already there, just look outside—to talk with Matt Legge about a global disaster.

Writing in the May issue of the science magazine Nature, Drs. Ransom Myers and Boris Worm came to a conclusion that has fish people freaked: since the 1950s, 90 percent of the world's large-fish population—including swordfish, marlin and tuna—have disappeared. Most of those fish reappeared briefly on dinner plates before disappearing again forever.

But there are still people like Legge who handle seafood every day of their working lives and haven't heard anything about "Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities." Legge is one of many managers at Newport Landing's Restaurant and Oyster Bar; has worked there for 12 years; says he's unaware of any piscatorial problems where his menu is concerned; says, "Quality is as good as it's ever been"; and then acknowledges the restaurant has been sans swordfish for two days. But they're in now, the swordfish, and the price won't change. He retrieves a menu to show us, pauses dramatically—a look of puzzlement flashes across his surfer-boy-cute mug—and points out that the price of the swordfish has indeed gone up $4 to $22.95.

If you—an average diner—will be paying more for your big-fish dinners, Ransom Myers is paying with his life. When we spoke to him by phone last July, he was sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., bemoaning the impact of global fish declines on his family.

Myers has become something of an activist, catalyzed by his own research into lobbying foreign capitals—including Washington, D.C.—to act quickly to stop the marine holocaust. "It has wrecked my life," gripes Myers, Killam chair of ocean studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since the Nature article appeared, there've been endless interviews (including those with CNN, the BBC and NPR) and government hearings in the U.S. All of that keeps Myers from his family, but family is sort of why he took on the task of fighting for fish. "My five-year-old son really likes hammerhead sharks," Ransom told CNN, "and that's good reason for me to care."

Ransom was being glib on CNN because when he spoke to us, it was pretty clear he believes we're headed toward a global catastrophe that will affect more than his kindergartner. Beginning in the early 1990s, he and Worm, a researcher at Germany's Kiel University, began collecting data from the world's major fishing grounds.

"Wherever we looked," Ransom says, "there was phenomenal destruction."

But Myers and Worm have critics, too: scientists who question their methodology, fishing-industry representatives, and local sportsfisherman who say they haven't seen a decline in anything but hate (a) commercial fishermen who vacuum the ocean for fish and (b) officials of the California Department of Fish and Game who tell them where and when to fish.

Ransom could have remained a lab-smocked scientist—could've moved on to the next project, jockeyed for a more prominent role in his department, whatever. But there was the five-year-old hammerhead enthusiast at home and this obvious harbinger of the apocalypse: "Worldwide destruction was taking place, and no one was having the least concern of it." Ransom jumped in.

Ransom and Worm blame technology. After World War II, Japanese commercial fishermen introduced longlining—hundreds of hooks on a single line, scores of lines swinging from a single ship, thousands of ships at sea. Myers and Worm found Japanese records revealing that, in 1950, shortly after the advent of longlining, fishermen could expect to pull in at least 10 fish for every hundred hooks they cast; these days, they're lucky to pull in one. The same data also show that areas fished by longliners recorded 70 percent of their total decline in fish populations within the first 15 years of the practice.

Longlining is not the only innovation responsible for depopulation of the ocean's predators. Mesh-net trawls or metal-chain dredges, which drag along the ocean floor, tearing up plant and animal communities, force fish to adjust to an unnaturally altered ecosystem, often throwing the fish populations into decline.

Government regulations have done nothing to curb 50 years of rapid decline. Even though American fishermen use the same strategies to catch fish—longlining, trawling and dredging—U.S. industry representatives have typically (and successfully) blamed foreign fleets for the decline in fish numbers. The power of that misperception is revealed any time you talk to Americans anywhere in the seafood chain. One local restaurateur had the typical response: all he could recall about overfishing was that it had something vaguely to do with "Japanese or Chinese fishermen."

Back in the '50s, American xenophobia was focused on so-called factory ships—these awesome ships that sail around the world for months at a time, catching, killing, processing and freezing what looked like every fish in the world—and, more spookily, Russian and Polish sailors off the Georges Bank near New England. American fishermen sought government protection, in part, they said, for purposes of national security.

In 1976, the feds responded with the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which banned foreign trawlers—they called them "spy ships"—from U.S. waters by establishing a 200-mile U.S. fishing zone. That added the U.S. to a rapidly growing list of nations with large exclusive economic zones.

But the act couldn't save U.S. commercial fishermen from themselves. It created eight regional fisheries councils to advise the government, councils made up largely of commercial fishermen. Today, commercial fishermen find ways around the regulations they impose on themselves; sports fishermen and consumers suffer.

Myers and Worm's work has carried across the world. There've been stories in the Washington Post, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Economist, The Guardian of London, the International Herald Tribune, New Scientist, New York Newsday, Slate, Time magazine, Science and the London Times. And there has been some criticism, most of it suggesting it's possible to offer alternative explanations for the sudden drop in fish populations—that the stupidest and weakest big fish get caught first, for example, and everything that survives constitutes a smaller but sustainable population.

"It's not that I have criticisms with the study; it's the conclusions people jump to based on the study," argues John Sackton, president of the industry website Seafood.com. "It's the same as saying there are fewer trees than before settlers arrived. When you create an industry, that's bound to happen. That doesn't mean the populations aren't sustainable."

Or does it? There's much evidence to suggest that as populations shrink, prices rise and fishermen are—to use a word popular in business circles—incentivized to become more aggressive, pulling up everything they can find fast. Even immature fish. Once that happens, it's possible we'd find ourselves in a fishing free fall.

That's what happened in the mid-1990s on the Georges Bank off the coast of New England. Once among the world's most productive fishing grounds, the Georges Bank seemed suddenly emptied. Many commercial fishermen dry-docked their boats, some forever. A 10-year moratorium on cod fishing off the coast of Newfoundland has failed to bring back the cod that was eastern Canada's gold.

There are points of no return, in other words, moments when animal populations balance precariously between comeback and extinction. And it's possible we're at one of those points now.

More evidence? Consider the rising price of swordfish. The Chart House in Dana Point no longer offers swordfish, one manager explains, "because it's being overfished; it's extremely expensive." Breezes (once Tony's Sea Landing) in Mission Viejo hasn't offered swordfish on its regular menu for about five months because, a manager said, "it's too pricy."

For anyone willing to pay the price, there's swordfish—but not always very big swordfish. The federal National Marine Fisheries Service says swordfish caught before 1963 averaged 266 pounds. "By 1970," the agency says, swordfish averaged "half this weight, and by 1996 [were] down to 90 pounds."

Diminutive swordfish don't bother everybody. Chris Garnier, chef partner at Roy's of Newport Beach, actually prefers what he calls a "medium-sized" fish, which, grading on the post-1963 curve, means a relatively small fish between 50 and 90 pounds. Federal law prohibits the sale of swordfish weighing less than 33 pounds, a mere 12 percent of the 1963 average.

By some oceanic anomaly, Southern California restaurants haven't seen a decline in the size of swordfish sold by local wholesalers. A manager at Bluewater Grill on the Balboa Peninsula says his swordfish comes from the waters around Catalina Island and weigh between 250 and 300 pounds. Back at Newport Landing, Matt Legge tells us that, okay, they've been out of swordfish for a couple of days, and sure, the price is up about 20 percent, but the swordfish arriving there are big ones, up to 300 pounds each.

"It's just business," says Dr. Jeff Kaufman, professor of marine biology at Irvine Valley College, hitting you with a simple lesson in supply and demand: as long as consumers with refined palettes will pay high prices for swordfish and shark, the commercial industry will find a way to provide it.

He explains the biological implications of overfishing this way: swordfish grow slowly over a natural lifespan of 25 years. But as commercial industries remove fish from the ocean before they reach maturity, the dwindling fish populations can't reproduce themselves in self-sustaining numbers. Crash.

Myers and Worm's Nature magazine study doesn't get into solutions. But Myers does support any ban that would decrease "fish mortality" by a minimum of 50 percent. "It would be difficult for fisherman initially," says Myers, "but they will see the gains in the long run."

Most marine biologists argue for the establishment of ocean sanctuaries where no fishing would be allowed. Improved eco-friendly technology that would reduce the size of unwanted catch and wouldn't damage the ocean's bottom and a cut in government subsidies to the fishing industry are possibilities. Others propose single-species management, like the closure on mid-Atlantic striped bass in the mid-1980s that allowed the population to rebound after only a decade.

Most important, consumer action could help. Next time you're thinking swordfish, you could think again.

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